Soya: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

If you punch in “soya” in Google, you’ll find a lot of praise for it and some very strong articles against it.

On the one hand, you’ve got large corporations claiming soy is very healthy and a perfect source of proteins for vegetarians and those with lactose intolerance.

On the other hand, you’ve got numerous little groups claiming soy is not healthy in certain forms (particularly unfermented).

The Good: Soya Health Benefits

Soybean is a source of complete protein (containing all the essential amino acids), it is low in saturated fats, high in fibre. As such, it should be a good substitute for people wishing to avoid meat and lactose. Soy also boasts other health claims such as the one endorsed by the FDA: soy protein lowers the risk of coronary heart disease.

As a result of these health properties, soy has been used in a vast range of products:

  • in meat alternatives (tofu, tempeh, vegetarian burgers, vegetarian sausages, vegetarian bacon)
  • in dairy alternatives (soy milk, cream, butter, cheese, deserts, soy-based infant formula, ice cream)

The Bad: Why Soya Is So Important … For The Economy

Unfortunately, soy has more properties of a different kind: it is very lucrative.

Soy is lucrative to grow because growers can sell both of the soy sub-products (oil and meal). This is why:

  • Soy is now the second most planted crop in the USA, after corn (1).
  • The use of genetically-modified soy is wide-spread (herbicide-resistant, fast-grower). In the world’s three largest producing countries, the USA, Brazil and Argentina, about 70-90 % of soybean produced consists of GM varieties (3).
  • Large areas of rainforest have given place to soy fields in Brazil (2).

Soy is also extremely lucrative to transform. Considerable value addition occurs at the downstream stages of the production and processing chain. Soy is a big industry ($2.6 billion industry in the USA in 2010)

Consequently, you also find soy in unsuspected places: snacks, cereals, protein powder, soybean oil (often called vegetable oil), margarines. Even if you think you don’t consume soy, you probably are. Refined soya is a hidden ingredient in many refined and pre-packaged foods available on the wider market. It is used to “pad out” such foods – generally people are not even aware that they are eating it. Soy oil, soy lecithin, soy sauce, and soy flour are just a few ingredients that are in many foods available today. It is often hiding in mayonnaise, vegetable broths, shortening and other oils (often called vegetable oils).

The Ugly: How Soya Is Abused And The Potential Consequences On Our Health

It is during World War II that soybeans became important in both North America and Europe chiefly as substitutes for other protein foods and as a source of edible oil.

However in recent years, the virtues of soya in such quantities and forms have been questioned and it was even alleged that soya could have adverse effects such as:

  • raising oestrogen levels (oestrogen would occupy receptor sites intended for testosterone causing many development problems in boys – breasts, underdeveloped gonads, lower sperm count, undescended testicles- and earlier puberty for girls leading to infertility problems later and possibly breast cancer)
  • interfering with thyroid functions (due to the plant hormones in soya known as isoflavones or phytoestrogens)
  • causing allergic responses (due to the widespread use of soy in infant milk, processed food and the possibility of greater allergenicity of genetically modified soy)

To Eat Or Not To Eat Soya?

Haven’t Asian people consumed soya for generations? Surely they should know if it was unsafe?
These are good questions and they cause more controversy. Some claim that Asian people do not in fact eat as much soy as once thought and they mostly eat fermented products (miso, natto, tempeh). Others saying it simply isn’t true.

One of the most factual articles I’ve read about the subject (Nutrition Journal (4)) concludes that, taken at dietary levels (less than 100mg a day), soy neither elicits adverse breast-cancer promoting effects, nor does it improve the prognosis of breast cancer patients.

My conclusion: Unless you’re allergic to soy or receive anti-oestrogen treatment, you should not need to avoid soy (it is a good source of plant protein). However, you should have a balanced varied diet where soy is one element of it, not the key element.

As for soy lecithin which is used in many processed food (it’s cheap for the manufacturers and helps food ‘gel’ together better), should you avoid it?

Well, do you really need all these processed foods anyway???

Obviously there are arguments on both sides, but for those of you in the ‘No’ camp, you might enjoy this video:

Sources:
(1) http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/SoybeansOilcrops/background.htm
(2) http://www.organicconsumers.org/corp/soy121903.cfm
http://globalwarmingisreal.com/2011/05/24/brazil-forms-crisis-counsel-in-response-to-dramatic-increase-in-amazon-deforestation/
(3) http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTAFRICA/Resources/257994-1215457178567/Soybean_Profile.pdf
(4) http://www.nutritionj.com/content/7/1/17

 


Comments

Soya: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly — 7 Comments

  1. Hey Isabelle,

    This was something I just had to stop by at. I am from India and we consume soy in many forms and yes quite frequently too. But the point remains that moderation should be the key. If you have anything in moderation then it shouldn’t cause any harm. But yes, my cousin recently switched to soya based dairy products and she has been telling me how energetic she is feeling.
    Hajra recently posted..Will they call you over for a Bloggers Party?My Profile

    • Hi Hajra,
      I totally agree with moderation, always!
      It’s interesting what you say about your sister. I think the energy boost she’s experiencing since she’s started soy products is probably due to stopping dairy products rather than the soy itself. One of the symptoms of allergy to dairy food is lack of energy (along with irritability, restlessness, hyperactivity, bloating, diarrhea, headaches, nasal stuffiness,…). She could try raw almond milk as a substitute for dairy milk and soy milk … so she doesn’t consume too much soy. It’s delicious and nutritious. Let me know if she likes it and what it does to her energy levels if she decides to give it a go.
      Isabelle

  2. Very informative article, Isabelle. Personally, I’m neither in the “anti soy” nor the “pro soy” camp. I belong in the “don’t avoid, but use it judiciously” camp. Any soy I consume regularly (and recommend) is almost invariably fermented. Miso, tempeh, natto etc.

    Rather than go with the soy experts, I say it’s smart to find out for ourselves. Have soy as your primary source of protein (both in its fermented and non-fermented forms) for a few weeks and watch how your mind-body system fares. Your body will tell you… if you listen.
    Srinivas Reddy recently posted..Change How You Eat & You’ll Change How You ThinkMy Profile

    • I really like your idea of ‘mind-body system’ and trying things out ourselves. It’s true that experts are far too often biased, unfortunately.
      Personnaly, I like the idea of everything in moderation and prefer natural food versus transformed and labeled ‘healthy’. I also love good food.
      Many Thanks for your comment. All the best.

  3. Very informative article, Isabelle. Personally, I’m neither in the “anti soy” nor the “pro soy” camp. I belong in the “don’t avoid, but use it judiciously” camp. Any soy I consume regularly (and recommend) is almost invariably fermented. Miso, tempeh, natto etc.

    Rather than go with the soy experts, I say it’s smart to find out for ourselves. Have soy as your primary source of protein (both in its fermented and non-fermented forms) for a few weeks and watch how your mind-body system fares. Your body will tell you… if you listen.
    Srinivas Reddy recently posted..Change How You Eat & You’ll Change How You ThinkMy Profile

    • I really like your idea of ‘mind-body system’ and trying things out ourselves. It’s true that experts are far too often biased, unfortunately.
      Personnaly, I like the idea of everything in moderation and prefer natural food versus transformed and labeled ‘healthy’. I also love good food.
      Many Thanks for your comment. All the best.

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